Japan's High Speed Bullet Train - The Shinkansen 新幹線

Shinkansen bullet trains at Tokyo Station
Shinkansen bullet trains at Tokyo Station

The Shinkansen Bullet Train: a Japanese transport icon

No visit to Japan would be complete without a trip on the shinkansen. The shinkansen is so central to Japan's modern identity that the image of a shinkansen passing Mount Fuji appears in, if not on the front of, most guidebooks and internet sites devoted to travel in Japan.

The beginnings of the shinkansen

The shinkansen started in 1964 in time for the Tokyo Olympics. However, the history of Japan's bullet train goes back to the 1930s and beyond.

When Japan began building railways at the start of the Meiji Period, the decision was taken to use a narrow gauge (the distance between the rails), rather than use the standard gauge.

Shinkansen Bullet Train at Aioi Station.
Sanyo Shinkansen at Aioi Station
Shinkansen bullet train at Nagoya Station
Shinkansen bullet train at Nagoya Station

It has been suggested that this decision was made upon the advice of Briton Edmund Morel, based on his experience of railway construction in other countries, where the topography was similarly challenging and there was a perception that the country would not develop to a level requiring a larger gauge (which bring advantages in higher capacity and speeds).

By the time that Japan was at war in the 1930s, Tokyo was becoming increasingly divorced from the front line of its Empire. The decision was taken to build a new standard gauge railway to improve travel times between the capital and, initially, the second biggest city, Osaka, but eventually between the capital and western tip of Japan, which would thereby shorten travel between Tokyo and Korea.

The line was to be called 'shinkansen' - "new trunk line" in Japanese - and the train to operate on it, the dangan ressha or 'bullet train.'

Bullet train arriving Nagoya Station, Nagoya, Japan.
The shinkansen bullet train is an icon of Japan
Hokkaido Shinkansen.
Hokkaido Shinkansen.

Post-war development of the shinkansen

As the war turned against Japan, so work on the line was abandoned (though not before some tunnels had been built and much land had been acquired).

By the end of the 1950's Japan was well and truly emerging from the ashes of defeat in the war. The conventional line between Tokyo and Osaka was at bursting point.

A solution was needed if Japan's economic development was to continue. The answer was the shinkansen.

Once the project was given approval, thanks in part to some clever management by the head of Japanese National Railways, which saw the Japanese Government become committed to the project due to the securing of funding from the World Bank also, construction pushed ahead.

Much of the route was the same as that planned some 20 years earlier. Even the train was not significantly different in terms of performance - the main difference being that it would be an electric multiple unit train (i.e. not pushed and/or pulled by locomotives, but with a motor under several carriages) rather than a steam train, as had been originally envisioned.

Shinkansen bullet train 700 series
JR Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train 700 Series

Tokaido Shinkansen

The opening of the Tokaido Shinkansen between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka station in Osaka in October 1964 heralded the start of the high-speed railway age.

It came at a time when many countries were turning their attention to planes and cars. The success of the shinkansen, which became known as the 'bullet train' worldwide due to its speed as well as a resurrection of the terminology of its war time ancestor, meant that countries such as France also began to look to the potential of railways to solve their transportation problems.

Faster and faster

In the early days the shinkansen had a top speed of 200 km/h (125 mph). This has risen and the fastest speed now done by a shinkansen is 300 km/h (188mph).

Although there are faster trains in the world, the slick silver-coloured 500-series shinkansen was for many years considered the fastest train in the world, its average speed between two station stops on a normal journey being the highest.

A new generation of faster shinkansen - capable of more than 360 km/h (225 mph) - is planned for introduction in a few years. The latest Shinkansen is the 700 Series.

Shinkansen Bullet Train.
Sanyo Shinkansen at Shin-Onomichi Station


But the shinkansen is not just about speed. Perhaps the most well known feature of the shinkansen's performance is that it runs on time.

Average delays are well below a minute. Anything more than a minute's delay is considered officially to be late (compared to 10 minutes in the UK and 15 minutes in France).

How is this achieved? Partly due to some spare capacity in the timetable - i.e. trains do not operate at their maximum speed all of the time. However, it also relies upon the co-operation of passengers. Most station stops are 50 seconds long.

To get passengers on and off in this time requires passengers to be ready to get off once the doors open, and for boarding passengers to be queuing at the correct place on the platform.

This in turn requires the driver to stop the train - which may be as much as 400 m in length - within a few centimeters of a specific place.

This is done with skill and precision. Computers are not used. Indeed, the only significant automatic procedure on the shinkansen is the over-ride in case the train is above the permitted speed.

On the whole, trains on many underground lines in London are more automated than the shinkansen.

Shinkansen bullet train at Tokyo Station
Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train at Tokyo Station

Japanese rail companies

Travelling around Japan it is possible to see the changes that have occurred since the national railways system was broken up and privatized in 1987.

In terms of the shinkansen, the obvious features are that different lines are operated by different companies: Tokaido Shinkansen (Tokyo-Osaka via Yokohama, Nagoya and Kyoto) - JR Tokai (aka JR Central); Sanyo Shinkansen (Osaka-Hakata via Okayama, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi) - JR West; Kyushu Shinkansen (Yatsushiro - Kagoshima) - JR Kyushu; Tohoku Shinkansen (Tokyo - Hachinohe via Sendai), Joetsu Shinkansen (Tokyo - Niigata), Hokuriku or 'Nagano' Shinkansen (Tokyo - Nagano), Yamagata Shinkansen (Tokyo - Shinjo), and Akita Shinkansen (Tokyo - Akita) - JR East.

Through-running trains on the Sanyo and Tokaido Shinkansen stop for a whole 2 minutes at Shin-Osaka so that the crews can change in order for JR West crews to operate west of Shin-Osaka and JR Tokai crews east of Shin-Osaka.

Shinkansen design

The heavy usage of the shinkansen by commuters within 200 km of Tokyo has even lead to the introduction of double-decker shinkansen on those lines.

The Yamagata and Akita Shinkansen lines are not full shinkansen lines for some sections - so the trains are narrower and travel at lower speeds once off the main line; however, having narrower trains and lower speeds avoids the need to change trains onto a narrower, conventional train as in the past.

The diversity in rolling stock which has come in during the past 15 years has meant that most visitors to Japan cannot help but become fascinated with the colours and designs that they see.

Numerous are the friends and families around the world who have been shown photographs of these amazing trains taken by those lucky enough to see them and travel on them for themselves.

This is part of the Japan experience for most visitors and is as essential an experience as visiting temples and shrines.

Shinkansen Video

Christopher P. Hood

Christopher P. Hood is Director of the Cardiff Japanese Studies Centre, Cardiff University and an Associate Fellow at Chatham House. He is the author of Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan (Routledge, 2006), Japanese Education Reform: Nakasone's Legacy (Routledge, 2001), co-editor with G. Bownas and D. Powers of Doing Business with the Japanese (Direct Image, 2003), and regularly handles media enquiries relating to Japan.

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JR Hokuriku Shinkansen at Tokyo Station.
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